Danish pastry anyone?

skA second passage (after the first) from Christopher Ben Simpson’s The Way is the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum. It’s a great introduction to Kierkegaard’s vision. When it comes to understanding what faith is and what it means to integrate (“appropriate” is Kierkegaard’s word) the truth of the gospel into and as one’s very life, the nature of the obstacles that must be faced and the costs involved, Kierkegaard captures things best for us.

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Objective and Subjective Truth
The problem with what Kierkegaard calls ‘objectivity’ or ‘objective truth’ in relation to being a Christian is that it shifts the ‘medium’ from ‘existence and the ethical to the intellectual, the metaphysical, the imaginational’ (PoV 130). In making Christianity a matter of intellectual reflection, of abstract imagination, ‘a more or less theatrical relationship has been introduced between thinking Christianity and being a Christian’ (PoV 130). The problem with the ‘objective’ approach to the truth of Christianity is that it ignores existence in favour of something that happens on the level of reflection alone ‘as if having thought about something were identical with existing’, and so committing the error ‘that by coming to know objectively what Christianity is…one becomes a Christian’ 9CUP 253, 570, 577). The problem with ‘objectivity’ is that, in its abstraction and so isolation from existence, it is not in touch with actuality, not in relation to truth (EO 542). The reality that it has lost contact with is that of the existing person. Objectivity is a truth that ‘goes away from the subject’ (CUP 193) – a truth that is impersonal and indifferent: ‘indifferent to the individual’s particular condition…indifferent to its relation to him…indifferent to how the individual receives it…indifferent to whether the truth becomes a blessing or a ruination to him’ (FSE 39; EUD 233-4). A Christianity built around such ‘objective’ truth is a ‘professorial-scholarly Christianity’ in which ‘the professor is the truth Christian’ (JFY 195); the problem is ‘not that what they say is an untruth, since they say what is true, but that true statement has no truth in them’ (UDVS 325) – they are ‘rich in truths and poor in virtues’ (EUD 350). When truth becomes ‘objective’, what is lost is the relation between the existing subject and what is seen to be true – the appropriation – ‘how an existing subject in concreto relates himself to the truth’ (CUP 75, 192-3)…

Subjective truth is a being in relation to, being involved in, the truth. ‘The relation of the subject’, Climacus writes, ‘is precisely the knotty difficulty’ (CUP 37). The subjective, for Kierkegaard, is the personal, is related ‘to a person present’ (FSE 39; UDVS 11). ‘Personal consciousness’, he writes, ‘requires that in my knowledge I also have knowledge of myself and my relation to my knowledge’ (CD 194). Central to this personal involvement is one’s decisions, one’s choices. Choice is, as Judge Vilhelm states, ‘decisive for a personality’s content’ (EO 482). An understanding of truth that includes decision as a necessary component is ‘subjective’, for ‘all decision is rooted in subjectivity’ and ‘only in subjectivity is there decision’ (CUP 33, 129, 203). In resolution one re-engages with actuality (after reflection). The choices one makes in relating to and engaging with the world constitute who one is as a person. Subjective truth is choosing to be in relation to what is. This implies that choosing rightly matters – that the content of the choice matters – for one’s life (EO 483). As deciding, choosing, actively relating to the world (to oneself, to others, to God) the thinking subject is involved in an ongoing process of existence as a continual striving (CUP 91-2)…

What Kierkegaard advocates is a movement from the ‘objective’ to the ‘subjective’, from reflection to resolution, from abstraction to action. One of Kierkegaard’s characteristic ways of describing this movement…is as appropriation. Appropriation is the movement of incarnating a truth that is not initially your own. It is a receiving that, as a genuine receiving, is a producing; appropriation…is literally: making something one’s own (CUP 21). In appropriation, a thesis, an objective truth to be known, becomes a task – ‘something quite different from knowing’ (CUP 297; JC 131) – or rather, the ethical and religious ‘theses’ are given their proper existential resonance as something more than propositions to be affirmed (JC 152-3). Subjective truth is then ‘the truth of appropriation’ where focus is brought upon ‘the subject’s acceptance of it’ such that, as Climacus famously writes, ‘when subjectivity is truth…a definition of truth [would then be this]: An objective uncertainty, held fast through appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth, the highest truth there is for an existing person’ (CUP 21, 129, 203)…

truman

Christianity, Christian truth, is at the end of a trajectory that begins with subjective truth and ascends and focuses in ethical and religious truth. Given ‘that subjectivity, inwardness, is truth’, Climacus writes that this ‘at its maximum is Christianity’ (CUP 279). If ‘subjectivity is truth and subjectivity is the existing subjectivity, then, if I may put it this way, Christianity is a perfect ‘fit’ (CUP 230). To truly exist humanly is to exist religiously, and to truly exist religiously is to exist Christianly (CUP 249)…Truth, then, as transcendent, as revealed, should be expected as something transcendent, as something from above challenging and frustrating our merely immanent categories here below, as something paradoxical. The trajectory does not lead to paradox or absurdity as such, to nonsense – as if one’s ‘subjective’ passion and earnestness is all that matters – ‘as a beatifying universal balm’. The trajectory points to a particular paradox…

Johannes Climacus writes in the Postscript: ‘The paradox came into existence through the relating of the eternal, essential truth to the existing person. Let us go further; let us assume that the eternal essential truth is itself a paradox’ (CUP 209). At the heart of Christianity is the paradox that ‘the eternal, essential truth…has come into existence in time’ (CUP 213). Christianity claims to present the eternal truth of human life – the truth of what we are and what we are to be – but this, Climacus writes, ‘is not an eternal truth in the sense of a mathematical or ontological theorem’; rather ‘Christianity is the paradoxical truth; it is the paradox that the eternal one came into existence in time’ – ‘the difficulty and the paradox are that it is actual’ (CUP 580; BoA 37).

This eternal truth come into existence is Christ – ‘Christ’s life upon earth, every moment of this life, was truth’ (PIC 203)…If Christ is this truth, the highest truth that is Christianity, is existing in the reality revealed in Christ. True human being, as living in community with God, with others, and with oneself, is a life ‘defined’ by Christ; it is the life of a disciple, an imitator of Christ…

Climacus presents the Christian way, Christian subjectivity as singular. ‘The appropriation by which a Christian is Christian’, he writes, ‘must be so specific that it cannot be confused with anything else (CUP 609); it is a ‘paradoxical inwardness that is specifically different from all other inwardness’ (CUP 610). The Christian way is based on Christ. Climacus holds that Christianity as paradoxical-religiousness is so unique that one, ‘just by describing the “how” of his inwardness can indirectly indicate that he is a Christian without mentioning Christ’s name’ for ‘this’ “how” fits only one object’ (CUP 613-14)…

And essential part of the particularly Christian understanding of truth for Kierkegaard – that the truth is ‘transcendent’, that it comes to us, from beyond us, in Christ – is our state as untruth. Untruth, for Kierkegaard, is the ordinary state for humans, is the ‘preceding state’ (EO 599; PF 13-14). While, for Christianity, subjectivity is truth, our subjectivity ‘at first’ is untruth (CUP 213)—that subjectivity is truth, Climacus states, ‘begins in which way: “Subjectivity is untruth”’ (CUP 207). This untruth is a state of isolation or estrangement – of not being in community, in communion with reality – ‘inclosed’ in one’s own false world, at a ‘painful distance from the truth’ (CA 128; CUP 269). One is self-deceived, not relating to what one is and the way things are as one is and as the way things are, in actuality (TDIO 35). One despairingly misrelates to the self either being tricked out of the self by becoming a finite thing bound to necessity without possibility of freedom (SUD 33) or by becoming something ‘fantastic’ (SUD 31), ‘a mirage’ (SUD 36) of infinite possibilities – lacking, not being constrained by actuality and so becoming unreal (SUD 35). This untruth is a despair, an unhappiness, that can manifest itself in a sense of disjunction, a sense that something is wrong with oneself. This despairing untruth, as Kierkegaard’s later pseudonym Anti-Climacus describes it in The Sickness Unto Death, is not willing to be the self that one is – or (what amounts to the same thing) willing to be a self one is not (SUD 52-3). This misrelation to the self is also a misrelation to God insofar as the self is fundamentally related to God – the self ‘is’ a set of relations with the relation to God being the most fundamental, as the power that establishes the self—as the one that made the self as it is an against which one rebels in rejecting oneself (SUD 60). The state of untruth is a loss of this God-relationship. As Climacus writes: ‘It is really the God-relationship that makes a human being into a human being, but this is what he would lack’ (CUP 244). It is being in a state of sin, or rebellion, of mutiny against God (CUP 208) – even to the extreme of the most self-conscious and willful misrelation to oneself in ‘demonic despair’ that, ‘in hatred toward existence…wills to be itself, wills to be itself in accordance with its misery (SUD 73).

skstampTruth for Kierkegaard is a matter of being true to one’s being. The self has a reality that is independent of one’s thoughts and desires – ‘the self he is is a very definite something’, writes Anti-Climacus, ‘it remains itself from first to last;…it becomes neither more nor less than itself’ (SUD 36, 69). There is something that is ‘the original text of individual human existence-relationships, the old familiar text handed down from the fathers’ (CUP 629-30). One can either affirm and enter into one’s nature, one’s actuality or deny it. Truth is a matter of being (becoming) true to the actuality, that one is, ‘the only actuality there is for an existing person’ (CUP 316). Because there is a reality to the self there is a standard for a proper relation to oneself. Thus Climacus writes: ‘That subjectivity, inwardness, is truth…but, please note, not every inwardness’ (CUP 282-3). One becomes true, becomes more fully actual, when one exists in relation to what one is. One’s being, one’s actuality, is that of an active relation, an ‘existing in’, and interestedness – a being-between, ‘an inter-esse’ (CUP 340, 314). ‘Subjectivity is truth; subjectivity is actuality’ when one subjectively lives in accord with (one enters into the actuality of) one’s actuality as a subject – which is itself a being-in-relation—and so becomes subjective, actual, true (CUP 343)…

The self, for Kierkegaard…is ‘a relation that relates itself to itself’ (SUD 13). As such, it is, among other things, a synthesis of the necessary and the possible. Anti-Climacus writes: ‘Insofar as it is itself, it is the necessary, and insofar as it has the task of becoming itself, it is a possibility’ (SUD 35). The necessary is the reality of the self, that cannot be otherwise – ‘the self he is is a very definite something, and thus the necessary’ (SUD 36). The necessary aspect of the self is ‘that place’ (SUD 36) that one is in which one becomes – chooses to relate to the self – possibly rightly, possibly wrongly. The possible is one’s possible relation to one’s necessary reality. With one’s reflective consciousness (with the ‘mirror of possibility’), one has freedom with regard to how one relates to oneself (SUD 37). Thus, one can ‘become lost in possibility’ (SUD 37) – one can conceive of and relate to oneself as other than one is (e.g. not in a fundamental relationship with God as one’s origin and end). The proper (possible) relation to one’s (necessary) self, the true relation is that of ‘taking possibility back into necessity’ – living as (for one could live otherwise) what one is – of ‘submit[ting] to the necessity in one’s life’, for this is what enables one to become a ‘concrete’ and actual self (as opposed to an unreal/illusory one) (SUD 36-7). By choosing the possible way of existing that is in accord with our necessary being, one becomes actual – thus, as Anti-Climacus writes, actuality is the unity of possibility and necessity’ (SUD 36)…

Kierkegaard sees the more profound ‘truth’ of human existence as a correspondence between one’s existing and one’s being – between one’s existence and one’s essence, perhaps (CUP 190-3). Truth is an honest – in ‘that your life expresses what you say’ (CD 167). It is a process of becoming sober – as Kierkegaard writes, ‘to come so close to oneself in one’s understanding , in one’s knowing, that all one’s understanding becomes action‘ (JFY 115). ‘Christianly understood’, the goal is ‘to be the truth’ – and this is achieved when the truth ‘becomes a life in me’ (PIC 205-6). The truth is incarnated in the way one lives. Bringing all of this together powerfully, Anti-Climacus writes that ‘to be the truth is the only true explanation of what truth is’ (PIC 205). I quote at length:

The being of truth is not the  direct redoubling of being in relation to thinking, which gives only thought-being, safeguards thinking against being a brain-figment that is not, guarantees validity to thinking, that what is thought it – that is, has validity. No, the being of truth is the redoubling of truth within yourself, within me, within him, that your life, my life, his life expresses he truth approximately in the striving for it, that your life, my life, his life is approximately the being of the truth in the striving for for it, just as the truth was in Christ a life, for he was the truth. (PIC 205)

This lived truth is its own best demonstration. Kierkegaard writes that ‘the highest a person is capable of is to make an eternal truth true, to make it true that it is true – by doing it, by being oneself the demonstration, by a life that perhaps will also be able to convince others’ (CD 98). Those who seek to show that Christianity is true in a purely intellectual manner are ‘busy in a strange way in the wrong place’ (CD 189) – for Christianity is to be true in life and should be shown forth as such, much in the  way that ‘the resolution of marriage is its own best recommendation’ (SLW 156). Christian ‘being true’ is a making manifest, a concrete showing, of the truth of Christianity in life.

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CA The Concept of Anxiety
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscripts
EO Either/Or
EUD Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses
FSE For Self-Examination
JFY Judge for Yourself!
PoV The Point of View
SLW Stages on Life’s Way
SUD The Sickness Unto Death
TDIO Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits

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Not that Fear and Trembling

ftFrom Christopher Ben Simpson’s The Way is the Truth: Kierkegaard’s Theologia Viatorum, a summary of Kiekegaard’s thought. I’ve removed the Danish equivalents for certain words but kept his references (cf. the key at the end).

Religious Faith: The Double-Movement
Religious faith, for Kierkegaard, has the structure of a double-movement. This, as we have seen, is reflected in Kierkegaard’s mode of communication (PoV 6-9). The general schedule is one of a redoubling in which a given position ‘is first of all its opposite (JFY 98). There is first the negative then the positive, first renouncing and then receiving, first emptying and then filling, first death and then life.

The first moment, the first movement of the double-movement of faith, is a negative one – an initial ‘wounding’ that has, nevertheless, a constructive end (TDIO 9; EUD 130; UDVS 279). Throughout his authorship, Kierkegaard names this first negative moment, the ‘first element’ of faith, as ‘despair’ (CUP 225-6; SUD 78, 116). Despair, strangely, is a way forward – ‘a man’ true salvation’ – ‘a hidden trapdoor – to ascent’ (EO 522; CD 114). This first, negative movement is also described as ‘infinite resignation’ (FT 36-8, 46), such that one has ‘resigned everything infinitely’ (FT 40). This infinite resignation is the ‘movement of infinity’ whereby one negates, resigns, gives up the finite such that one is left with the infinite (FT 38) – whereby one ‘practic[es] the absolute relation or infinite through renunciation…of relative ends’ (CUP 431-2). Despair or infinite resignation is a benefit in that with them one renounces, abandons, gives up the finite, the lower, in favour of the infinite, for the higher (FT 18, 48) – one ‘renounce[s] the whole temporal realm in order to gain eternity’ (FT 49) – one turns from Mammon to seek first the kingdom of God. With this, one gives up on all finite possibility. It is a ‘dying to’ – a ‘middle term’ in which one ‘die[s] to the world’, ‘’breaking…with that which he naturally has his life’ – and so has ‘emptied himself in the infinite (FSE 76; JFY 98; MLW 177, 214; FT 69). This renunciation, this despair extends to the whole personality (EO 515) – surrendering, losing, even hating the self (EO 522; SUD 67; MLW 335) – wresting away self-love in a movement of repentance that dies to the self and to the world (WL 17; FT 99, 101).

In all of the negation and giving up and ‘dying to’ of infinite resignation, one ends up affirming or choosing one thing: oneself ‘in one’s eternal validity’ as having an ‘eternal consciousness’ – as being in relation to the infinite, the eternal – as loving God alone (EO 515, 520; FT 46). After one renounces all that is finite one is left with God, with oneself before God – even if before God one is always in the wrong – even if in loving him one is nothing before him (EO 601-6; R 212). For such a one has renounced even being in the right; God is their only desire.

For Kierkegaard, the second movement of religious faith is that of ‘faith’. ‘Only when he individual has emptied himself in the infinite’, Johannes de Silentio writes, ‘only then has the point been reached where faith can break through’ (FT 69). After the either/or decision of infinite resignation – choosing the higher and dying to the lower – faith then returns to the lower, for ‘it is great to give up one’s desire, but it is greater to hold fast to it after having given it up; it is great to lay hold of the eternal, ,but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up’ (FT 18). In the double-movement of faith one resigns the lower for the higher (in infinite resignation) and then regains the lower (in ‘faith’) – this is because the lower is nothing without the higher, for the lower only is in relation to the higher – one rightly renounces it as nothing (on its own, as self-existing) in the first movement.

the-scream

This winning back of the finite that was lost and dead happens, as Johannes de Silentio (alone among the pseudonyms) writes, ‘by virtue of the absurd’ (FT 36, 40, 46-7, 115). This mans that faith makes an affirmation in the midst of despair – when there is no human possibility. It believes (notice de Silentio’s gloss) ‘by virtue of the absurd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible’ (FT 46). For, as Constantius writes, ‘when every thinkable human certainty and probability were impossible [and] from the point of view of immediacy, everything is lost’ one can come into relation to something other than the human frame of possibility, probability, certainty ‘thunderstorm’ (R 212). So are the movements of faith the ‘movements of finitude’ (FT 38) in which one comes to receive, to regain (as a ‘repetition’) the finite – to ‘receive everything’ (FT 49), ‘to grasp the whole temporal realm’ (FT 49), to affirm temporal actuality as divine gift. Faith (re)gains ‘everything’, the finite ‘whole and intact’ (CD 146; FT 37) – more fully whole and intact than before in the light of its divine origin – including one’s self ‘whole in every respect’ (CA 106) – regains these as a ‘new creation’ (FT 40).

With the second movement of religious faith, there is a teleological suspension – suspending one’s bonds to the lower and being suspended from the higher (as an inverted foundation, like a suspension bridge). As such a double-movement (negative and then positive) ordered to an end, faith is a foresight than anticipates an arrival, a joyous sight, a fuller understanding that is to come (FT 21, 52, 65). One lives, with divine assistance, in the light of a right relation to God and to oneself (MLW 215). In faith, the self ‘rests transparently’ in God (SUD 30, 49) and has learned ‘the proper self-love’ (WL 18). This life is one of security, comfort, harmony and joy (FT 40, 50; EUD 330).

As seen in the second movement above, the higher from the perspective of the lower is seen as absurd. Faith can only be thought, be understood, on the higher plane, in a theological frame. It is seen as ‘absurd’ because it does not fit within the comprehensive frame of the lower sphere – this is a signal that either I am right and this is wrong (the absurd if false) or I am wrong (my perspective is false). The one in the lower must endure the difficult, te trial, the either/or, the ‘absurd’ to attain the higher (and regain the lower) (FT 27). The lower (without faith) cannot understand the higher – it cannot ‘get a perspective’ (FT 33). The absurd is a negative sign that something cannot be narrated from a given perspective. This makes perfect sense from the perspective of the higher (FT 261-3). As Kierkegaard writes in an unpublished reply to a review of Fear and Trembling, the paradox marks a ‘higher rationality’: ‘When I believe, then assuredly neither faith nor the context of faith is absurd. Oh, no, no – but I understand very well that for the person who does not believe, faith and the content of faith are absurd’ (FT 262 sup).

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CA The Concept of Anxiety
CD Christian Discourses
CUP Concluding Unscientific Postscripts
EO Either/Or
EUD Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses
FT Fear and Trembling
FSE For Self-Examination
JFY Judge for Yourself!
MLW The Moment and Late Writings
PoV The Point of View
R Repetition
SUD The Sickness Unto Death
TDIO Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions
UDVS Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits
WL Works of Love

God the center of gravity

gravityRecently I’ve been thinking about what it means to say God is the “end of all desire,” the transcendental ground from which all desire rises and to which it naturally tends, even if not always consciously. The analogy of gravity came to mind.

Gravity exerts a force of attraction upon all physical bodies. We live and move within the force of its attraction. Even our “weight” is just a measure of this force of attraction. We often think of gravity as a force to escape or overcome, say, when we send ourselves skyward in rockets. But it’s as true (though less appreciated) that this force of attraction also makes all our movements possible. All the every-day movements by which we engage and enjoy the world are made without our calculating the force of gravity vis-a-vis the mass of all the bodies that occupy our world. We don’t go about our days consciously thinking about this, but we also couldn’t go about anything at all without the universal force of attraction which makes all movements possible and relates them to each other predictably.

We might think of the universal force God has upon us (upon our desiring, our meaning-making) in a similar way. God is the center of all existential gravity – the one ‘end’ (telos, purpose, ultimate object of desire) which makes possible the intentions we form upon any object of desire as such. Even when the immediate desire we settle upon tends to some selfish end, seeking to escape the force of gravity leaves us nonetheless having to deal with it, living within the possibilities its inescapable attraction makes possible. Of course, no analogy explains everything one might want to say by comparison. There are differences between the force of gravity’s attraction upon physical bodies and the force of attraction which God is to all desire. But I find the analogy helpful. God is that transcendental orientation, that universal attraction of the Good, the True, the Beautiful upon and within all the rational movements of the mind and will, making possible and fulfilling every desire (as well as defining the consequences of unfulfilled desire), for desire just is the force of divine attraction. Our existential “weight,” consequently, is just the measure of our “meaning-making” (our “desiring”) in light of God’s being our final end and highest good. Just as the force of gravity operates from some center of gravity, making possible all the movements of our bodies, so God (the Good, the True, the Beautiful) is always present as the center of attraction to which we give the name ‘desire’, making possible and fulfilling all the movements of the will.

The God relationship our conscience

treasure_in_jars_of_clay_by_saireba-d4pjkw2Through the co-inherence of eternity and existence in love, the ethical significance of relationality emerges. Without an extended examination of Kiekegaard’s position on love (especially set forth in Works of Love), it is possible to describe the irreducibly relational nature of love. In the Great Commandment, there are no external standards to go by. After first loving God with our whole being so that “the God relationship [becomes] our conscience,” then we are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. The command begins and ends in relationality, and it works because “if one must love his neighbor as himself, then the command, like a pick, wrenches open the lock of self-love and thereby wrests it away.” In other words, since the eternal and the existential coinhere in love, there can be no other external criteria to justify love or to explain its duties which are not ipso facto less or lower than the relational reality of love itself. The very familiarity of the Great Commandment tends to obscure its radical ethical nature, but its basic power lies in the claim that relationality—not empirical fact, nor moral principle, not rational argument—is the irreducible nature not only of love’s ethic but of human beings in themselves.

(James Loder, The Knight’s Move)

And earlier this, from Steinmair-Pösel:

Jesus’s imitation of the Father doesn’t end in the blind alley of rivalry, because—as Girard says—it is not based on a greedy and egoistic form of desire. Rather, Jesus’s way of imitation is in itself an unmerited gift. Christian theology locates the fundamental reason for this fact in Trinitarian theology, in the passionate relations of the divine Persons with each other. In Extra Media Nulla Salus? Attempt at a Theological Synthesis, Jozef Niewiadomski pointed out that Jesus “became independent of mimetic projections” because his “relation to his God had become the innermost core of his own self-experience and of his own person.” The concrete man Jesus of Nazareth is stamped by his passion for the communicating God, a passion that arises from participation. Thus Jesus’s image of the Father is not that of a rivalrous God who wants to withhold something from God’s creatures, but that of a loving Father who wants to give Godself as a present. Moreover, Jesus is not an autonomous subject imitating the Father by virtue of his own efforts; he is imitating the Father by virtue of the Holy Spirit that has been given to him. According to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in baptism.

From Nothing—Part 5

mortalityIn Part 4 I suggested (with McFarland and Eikrem) that mortality (entropy/decay) per se is not an evil consequence of creation’s fall from a primordial perfection but that it constitutes the minimal basic necessary context in terms of which conscious embodied beings such as us must negotiate the choices necessary to becoming what God intended – one with God in love and partnership in the cosmos.

My friend John (comments section) writes that he recognizes that our finitude “might conceivably require…epistemic distances and ontic privations in order to be exercised and realized.” Precisely. But he asks “But what length of distance? And what depth of privation?” Good questions.

A few weeks ago I found myself in conversation with an Eastern Orthodox believer who, strangely, insisted that God’s purposes for us (i.e., our union with him in love and our partnership with him in the cosmos) include not only our mortality, but also our actual moral depravity, and that evil itself is required for creation to find its home in God. I got the feeling this gentleman was speaking from the edge of the edge. In any case, it’s fatally (pun intended) overstating the context in terms of which we must travel the pathway to our end in God, and it’s certainly not reflective of Orthodoxy’s general vision. John’s questions, though, got me to thinking again about the necessity of mortality.

Why think mortality (by which I mean entropy and decay, and thus death) is the necessary context in which human beings find their way to fulfillment in God? To risk offending readers with a needless repetition, let me repeat what I’ve said:

For the rather simple reason that there is (for us) no coming into the fullness of being which is not a coming into to the truth of being, and part of our truth is our absolute contingency, gratuity, and dependency upon God. This entails, of necessity, embracing the truth of the nothingness out of which God calls us into being. This is a truth we cannot comprehend apart from an experience of mortality. So, mortality is the possibility of our relating the truth of our finitude to the immortal God, and this is the truth we must come to terms with en route to fully participating in the grace of eternal life. So to the extent it is true that we are nothing in ourselves – mortality is a grace, however temporary a mode of being it was meant to be. Mortality becomes death “the enemy” (in the existential/theological sense of Heb 2.14) when we choose to misrelate despairingly to our finitude….

To John’s questions then: What length of [epistemic] distance must define the space in which we make our way Godward? And what depth of privation must define our existence for that existence to arrive to the fulness God intends? For me the answer is bound up with the nature of created finitude, on the one hand, and privation, on the other. Finitude is no privation, obviously. If finitude were a privation, then creation would come privated and evil from God, and we don’t want to say that. When we are all God created us to be, in the full light and enjoyment of God as our end, we shall remain finite. Privation is another matter. Privation is privation of the good. And if finitude is the nature of creation in its goodness, then our privation is misrelation precisely to the truth of our finitude.

What of the epistemic distance that qualifies our finitude? Well, it can’t be that believing falsehoods and lies is a good thing, or even a necessary thing for us. But the ignorance of finitude is no privation. The question is what kind of epistemic distance has to define the context in which we make responsible choices Godward? We have to know enough to choose rightly, not step into it accidentally. But if choice is to be the means of a responsible self-determination toward our end, then we can’t be so overwhelmed with the obvious truth of things that deliberation becomes rationally impossible. The epistemic distance has to be greater than 0 but less than 1.

The end of such distance, its purpose, is its own final closure achieved over time through the exercise of the will. We experience this tendency now as habituation, the solidification of the will. But we’re talking here about the necessary starting point, about what has to be in place for us to make the journey toward final union with God. We can’t start out at the end – obviously – but the beginning, though less than the end, also cannot be “privation” or evil. This is where we locate mortality as entropy and decay. Apart from the experience of mortality (entropy, decay, death) we would have no grounds upon which to perceive the truth of our own finitude and our movement to final union with God would be impossible, for that union is predicated precisely upon our choosing to relate rightly as created, as finite.

So – how much “epistemic distance”? Necessarily, enough to make truly responsible choice possible. That varies. But to what depth of “privation”? If by privation we mean privation of the good, then none at all necessarily. Finitude is the goodness of being created. Privation is the evil of refusing to acknowledge our finitude.

Seeing all things in Christ

StFrancisJohnAugustSwansonWIt is common for Christians to speak of our being “in Christ” but also of all things being in him. I was recently asked what I have in mind when I speak of seeing all things in Christ. I thought I’d reflect on it some.

When I speak of all things being “in Christ” I’m talking primarily how the contemplation of anything can become the occasion for a transformational encounter with God. I don’t just mean that contemplating the existence of contingent things can lead one logically to conclude there is a God and then withdrawing from being fully present to thing and travel off and search for God in some argument. I mean to say that the things we contemplate are where God is met, that God is inseparably present in the being of things without being reducible to them so there is a immediacy of divine presence coterminous with the proper contemplation of things (contemplated as created, as good, as beautiful, as sustained by God, etc.). God’s presence and the presence of created things become convertible with each other.

This includes experiencing myself within the contemplation of things. The contemplation of things becomes the contemplation of oneself. It really is an experience of self-transcendence, because the beauty and goodness of your own existence is irreducible to the things you contemplate. This is opened up through perhaps the most important discipline of spiritual insight there is – silence. “Be still” says the Psalmist, “and know that I’m God.” That’s where I integrate the deepest truth of things into how I view the world and myself in it. The structure of it emerges precisely as St. Paul describes: “I, not I, but Christ.” (Gal 2.20)

This self-transcending approach to the contemplation of things is where one experiences not the abstract truth of God’s existence given the contingency of all things. You’re not contemplating a syllogism at this point, but the living presence of Christ as the ever-speaking Word of the Father. It’s what the contemplatives all report – when one quiets oneself and attends to the irreducible goodness and beauty of things, and when one listens there, one will find oneself (as Sarah Coakley says) being caught up in a conversation and eventually being addressed within that conversation.

Christ is ‘in’ things (sustaining them, reflected in them, etc.), and so are all things in him (sustained and held together). That’s something one can contemplate third person as it were, as a philosophical or theological construct. But you can also experience this as one’s own truth, the deepest and truest thing about you. At some point – and there’s no easy way to say this – Christ is not just ‘in’ things but ‘as’ things, ‘as’ them in the sense that however deep you go into the constitution of things, that conversation that addressed you is already there – as if Christ just is the being of things. How then do you peel apart “I” and “Christ” in St. Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ”? How do you put distance between yourself and Christ when deepest truth of who you are is (inside) the deepest truth of who he is. What else does Paul mean when he says we are given the Son’s own eternal cry of “Abba, Father!”? Who we are is on the inside of who he is. One sees “from” Christ (where one is) “to” Christ in all things. This is how one comes to see oneself in all things (again, language strains), because if I am in Christ, and Christ is in all things. I am in all things. It’s not “I” who embrace all things. Rather, I am embraced by the One who embraces all things. And the act by which he embraces all things in himself cannot be dissembled into discrete acts. There’s no distance between you and I because there’s no distance in Christ in whom you and I are.

There’s a truth to “Christ in all things” that can be apprehended on a philosophical level. That’s helpful. But the heart longs for more. There is an encounter with the reality to which such truths point. The transition from one to the other travels along the path of the persistent contemplation of the goodness, beauty and giftedness of things, the truth of the gospel as the unity of all things in Christ. This may be why Paul is careful in 1Cor 15 to say that in the end “God becomes all in all.” Not just “in all” — which is already true — but “all in all.” Might this suggest our perceiving God in all as the explicit truth of things? It’s one thing for God to see you. That’s always true. It’s another thing to know God sees you. But it’s transformational finally to see God seeing you. That, is seems to me, is of the same species of God’s being all in all.

There is no spoon

Neo_spoon

British psychologist Susan Blackmore’s answer to death anxiety is to deny the existence of that which fears death. Rather than fearing death, we extinguish the desire for an enduring existence, and that is accomplished by realizing the illusory nature of what we take to be an enduring reality, namely, the Self. There is no reason to fear death, Blackmore assures us, because there is no enduring Self that lives beyond the span of a nanosecond. What we take to be the enduring identity and significance of our lives is in fact a chain of stillborn selves, each of whom dies as quickly as it is born. Life – as we experience it – is one long chain of death (as much as it is anything else).

All our experiences, perceptions, beliefs, emotions, deliberations are simply a sequence of discrete slices, and any attempt to construe them as constituting a history of personal significance is illusory. After all, that would require a principle of unity higher than the discrete occasions it seeks to unify. Check out the first three minutes if that’s all you have time for. She nicely summarizes the bad news.

One should understand what is being said here. Not only is the Self an illusion, but all aesthetic perception and valuation is illusory, for these are by definition ‘narratives’ constructed by selves over time, and per Blackmore, all narratives are illusions because there is no enduring principle of unity sufficient to gather together the discrete temporal moments of a life into a meaningful whole – and the feelings, aesthetic perceptions and moral valuations of our lives are narratives.

Such an understanding of reality fails on its own terms. Forget special appeals to transcendence for the moment. Rationality itself, as well as moral valuations (even moral judgments made on a purely materialist basis), are only conceivable if our rational beliefs and moral judgments supervene truthfully upon a history (individual or social). But all beliefs and moral judgments are narratives, and as such are illusions on Blackmore’s view. So it is not just the self that is an illusion because it is a narrative (which Blackmore knows because of the non-illusory, socially constructed narrative of her scientific method), but so are all narratives illusions, for all narratives, like the self, are constructed narratives that supervene upon discrete, momentary events which in fact do not constitute an enduring anything. But if this applies to all narratives, it applies Blackmore’s own narrative that all narratives are illusions. Her view cannot escape the reach of its own criticisms.

Indeed, “science” (by which I mean the ‘scientific method’) is a (kind of) Self. It is a socially constructed narrative expressive of an identity (that is, a shared perspective on the truth and meaning of the world) that acts as a filter through which all things are interpreted. But – and this is crucial – the power to recognize illusion as illusion cannot itself be an illusion. Some enduring reality, immanent in every conscious act but not itself deriving from any temporal process within nature, must be responsible for unifying conscious experience in the transcendental ways we require to get the simplest thought off the ground.

What ways are those? Well, to begin with, I’m not suggesting the Self is its own enduring reality that grounds the rational/intelligible/narrative structure of consciousness. With Blackmore, I’m happy to deliver the bad news to those who believe otherwise that they’re believing a fantasy. But not everything is illusion, namely, our power to recognize illusion as such. So the transcendent structure of personal experience should lead us to avoid ending our search where Blackmore ends hers, that is, in illusion.

Two undeniable features of our experience have to be kept in mind: First, the illusory nature of the socially constructed self. Secondly, the transcendent power to perceive this about ourselves (and the conditions under which we exercise this power). In the first instance there is indeed an illusion to expose, namely, the illusion that any self constructed upon the proposition that nature is a closed, material system can serve as the principle of unity for a life. In the second instance, however, the power to recognize this illusion cannot itself be an illusion. It must transcend the conditions under which the self is rightly said to be an illusion. But notice, this recognition of transcendence is itself rational, is the judgment of some ‘self’ (namely, whoever thinks his way properly into the truth of the matter), and it unifies the flow of history in a meaningful narrative. So while it may be an illusion that my truest self, the core of my meaning, is my being a white, American male or a former Republican, or whatever identity I could lose contact with in the event of a stroke or a fall on the bathroom floor, what is not an illusion is that every self expresses an enduring, conscious power for meaning-making under certain transcendent conditions, namely, the longing or desire for rational/intelligible perception, aesthetic experience, and interpersonal relations. In classical terms, it is a power for the experience of truth, beauty and goodness. Any attempt to deny this, as far as I can tell, only manifests its truth. Not all is illusion.